In November, Chris Kolenda and Robin Raphel boarded a plane to Doha, Qatar for a conversation with Taliban representatives. It was the beginning of a quiet channel, never authorized by U.S. officials—who neither paid them nor asked them to carry any messages—that proved to be instrumental in convincing the Trump administration, and particularly senior Pentagon and U.S. military officials, that there was a real chance to broker an end to the war.

Kolenda, an Afghanistan veteran himself, had been here before. He had been part of an ultimately fruitless attempt during the Obama administration to talk with the Taliban. But this time, talking with the Taliban in Doha, “I was struck by what I detected was a much higher level of seriousness about bringing the conflict to a close than I saw in 2011,” Kolenda told The Daily Beast.

That seriousness was manifested through Taliban leaders showing pliability about the future of the U.S. troop presence. Despite their strident public position that U.S. troops must withdraw, the Taliban communicated to Raphel and Kolenda that there were circumstances under which they can envision living with a continued American military presence. And they again vowed that an Afghanistan open to Taliban political participation would not host a foreign terrorist presence, satisfying the central U.S. objective of the 17-year war.